Two of the greatest delights in life are live theatre and good food. Combining them has until now mostly been a sequential matter – either rushing down food with an anxious eye on the time for a pre-show repast or waiting until after the show when hunger has too often been and gone!
So it was a stroke of genius for Jack Lowe to come up with the idea of doing both together, and a bold move by the Theatre Royal to host this remarkable event.
The event is set in the new Stage Two studio which gives a neutral setting appropriate to a tale based on the lives of a very distinct group of people, the chefs of the sky, the skilled food makers who prepare gourmet food for the high flying traveller.
So called ‘low cost airlines’ have taken one of the great joys of air travel away, the in flight meals served graciously at your seat by immaculate and calming stewards and stewardesses. This show takes us on board a flight that still brings the best of haute cruise to an equally haute clientele.
We are presented with an intriguing menu which combines the talents of some of the brightest chefs in the Norwich area – Richard Hughes from the Assembly House, Richard Bainbridge and Ashley Williamson at Benedicts, Vijay and Dalsukh Jetani at Namaste Village and Shunsuke Tomeii at Shiki, with contributions from The Bread Source and the Theatre’s own in-house Kemp’s Restaurant.
The small and beautifully prepared dishes are served to us as we sit in a large oval around the three actors who bring us the narrative. Agat (Janet Etuk) works the plane kitchen with Nora (Georgina Strawson) but they are joined for today’s flight by Luca (Craig Hamilton). At first the tale unfolds gently and quietly as we settle into our seats for the flight. But as the courses proceed we are drawn into a story of tragedy and humanity that touches on an experience where airports are often key gateways – the plight of those who have to leave their home country and seek refuge in another. The three characters are united by a love of food and making it, but each has their own life story outside their ever-moving workplaces and we are given glimpses of their lives and struggles and triumphs.
The provision of a seven course taster menu to a room of forty diners simultaneously would test the most competent of kitchens, but achieving it in a theatre studio is an impressive feat. It was achieved with grace and precision by the supporting waiters with timing determined by the dialogue between the three actors that seemed to include some ad-libbing.
And the food… Stunningly good. The skills of five restaurants are brought together into a coherent and contrasting succession of superb flavours that is a culinary first class flight. While there are many familiar ingredients the blending and contrasts of distinctive flavours gives a remarkable taste journey which takes us on a flavour adventure from Asia to homegrown delights from Yorkshire and the Peak District to the very end of Brighton Pier. All the dishes were remarkable but one stood out for me, a creation from Shiki chef Shunsuke Tomeii called Autumn Mist, with smoky earthy flavours of mushrooms and buckwheat noodles flavoured with miso, applewood smoke, green tea and many other tasty things which I would never have dreamed of combining.
This show could have been seen as over-ambitious but it works really well. If you are a fan of any of these top Norwich restaurants you will love this chance to broaden your taste experience in an unique combination. Add to this a poignant and human story of young lives from diverse backgrounds coming together and you have the recipe for a delightful evening. Under Stephen Crocker’s guidance the Theatre Royal is embracing new ideas about how theatre can play a part in our lives, and this brilliant initiative will I hope inspire many others to shamelessly copy the concept of blending good new drama with excellent food.
The show is not perfect, there were some variations of pace in the show I saw on Friday but these could be smoothed over as the run progresses. The set and technical equipment are both complex and perhaps over complicated – there is a Kaiten-zushi sushi conveyor belt in front of us which was not in use and seemed a rather curious feature for a show set on a plane. We are given headphones to wear throughout, although the actors are quite audible without them, but perhaps they help to mask any incidents of over enthusiastic audience slurping. But the novelty of the concept and the exceptional food combine to make this a delightful and unusual evening out – I strongly recommend that you sample this taster while you can.
© Julian Swainson 2018
Gastronomic, Stage Two at Norwich Theatre Royal, Thursday 6-Saturday 22 September, Thurs, Fri and Sat at 6.45pm and 8.45pm. Tickets £27.50, and under-30s £25. Audio-described performance on Sat 22 Sept at 6.45pm. Captioned performance on Thurs 20 Sept at 6.45pm.
To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000